Can the Free World crack the dam of dictatorship and unleash the next democratic wave?

Associated Press/Alex Brandon

Many international observers believe that democracy has been experiencing a downward trend across the globe for more than a decade. Acknowledging this as a grave concern, the Biden administration will host a Summit for Democracy in early December. The summit will center around three core themes: pushing back on authoritarianism, addressing and fighting corruption, and advancing respect for human rights. 

While these are worthy topics to discuss, it would be most beneficial for participating nations to take specific actions that address all three. This requires a mix of incentives and deterrence measures to alter the demeanor of nondemocratic regimes. To succeed, any post-summit strategy should include the following steps that could have tremendous impact, but are often overlooked, to better advance democracy worldwide. 

First, prioritize the release of political prisoners. Too often this is treated as a side issue. Many times, the imprisonment of a journalist or an opposition figure is discussed at the end of a meeting. It must be moved toward the beginning. Political prisoners have risked their lives to speak out on behalf of a great cause. They must not be abandoned. Throwing someone behind bars for exercising a basic right is a sign of insecurity and weakness. More importantly, it is a recognition of the strength behind a viable democratic movement and a sign that the regime in power fears for its survival. 

Of all the actions for summit participants to take, this one might be the easiest. Political prisoners’ stories must be told in high-profile speeches and at events that grab the attention of the public and the press. At every opportunity, government representatives at every level must advocate for them. Too many policymakers falsely believe the best way to win someone’s release is by remaining silent to avoid creating tensions between governments. That is exactly what a political warden wants. Going forward, summit leaders should name and shame democracy’s enemies, while naming and faming democracy’s heroes. 

Second, punish regimes for internet blackouts. The internet is a platform where people can practice freedom of speech, freedom of press, and organize a peaceful protest. When a regime feels threatened by protestors in the street, one of the first things it does is shut down the internet. It’s a way of saying to the world, “Turn around. We don’t want you to see what happens next.” Shortly after, security forces are unleashed to carry out a vicious campaign of violence on an innocent public. By limiting a population’s ability to post and share images of state-sponsored brutality, the world becomes blind to the horrors that could force a response.  

Although the United States and several other countries have passed a version of a Global Magnitsky Act to punish human rights abusers and have invested in ways to communicate around firewalls, these measures do not act as deterrents. The world’s democracies must come together and agree to set up economic and diplomatic penalties that come with shutting down the internet. Right now, an internet blackout is something a dictator doesn’t think twice about. They need to understand that doing so will come with a price. In any campaign to expand political transparency, we cannot overestimate the importance of a free and open internet.  

Third, tie democratic advancements to more trade deals. A post-summit plan must offer incentives to countries who are still not sold on representative government. An overwhelming majority of the most advanced economies belong to democratic societies. The same is true for many of the world’s best militaries. Democracies succeed in these areas because they encourage private-sector participation, creation and innovation. International trade is where democracies have their strongest leverage. It must be used. Fortunately, there is precedent for this. 

One example is the Jackson-Vanik amendment to the 1974 Trade Act. This prevented any non-market economy that severely limited emigration rights from achieving most-favored nation status with the United States. Jackson-Vanik successfully applied enough pressure to force Soviet-dominated states to ease travel restrictions, which allowed hundreds of thousands of religious minorities to flee the dark days of communist rule. Its passage laid the groundwork for the end of the Cold War, and it should serve as a blueprint for any future strategy. Although the details of each trade relationship vary by country, democratic advocacy should be closely linked to our broader economic goals. 

Fourth, lean on partners as well as adversaries. It is difficult to win an argument or succeed in a debate without credibility. The U.S. and our allies have many important foreign policy goals, and to achieve some of those goals we have relied on the assistance of unsavory regimes with disastrous human rights records. While that may have provided benefits in the short term, turning a blind eye to their lack of democratic ways will only make the advancement of liberty harder to accomplish in the long term. 

Finally, work in unison. A global democratic alliance must speak with a clear, unequivocal voice. No nation can accomplish the summit’s objectives alone. This will require a team effort and a comprehensive approach for the next several decades. Progress may be slow, but impatience must be rejected. A sustained and committed effort will showcase a steely determination to succeed. This kind of resilience will strengthen democratic movements on every continent. An unshakeable resolve will be incredibly powerful. 

Although democracies are not perfect, they provide the tools for any society to make improvements. Conversely, dictatorships are much more likely to lead their people to war, genocide, famine, poverty and pandemics. If the world is going to become a more peaceful and prosperous place, democracies must prevail. These steps won’t relegate dictatorships to the ash heap of history overnight. Strategic patience must be part of the formula. However, with persistence and discipline, they can help crack the dam of dictatorship and unleash the next democratic wave. 

John O. Stapleton is a term member with the Council on Foreign Relations and the managing editor at the International Republican Institute. He is a former senior professional staff member at the Foreign Affairs Committee and senior adviser at the Committee on Homeland Security in the U.S. House of Representatives. The opinions expressed here are his alone.

Tags Authoritarianism Democracy internet blackout political prisoners Summit for Democracy

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